Philip Davis continues his investigation of goddess theology
“The Goddess is alive! Magic is afoot!”
THIS SLOGAN, becoming ever more prominent on bumper stickers and t-shirts, highlights the conundrum of modern Goddess spirituality. We live in an age in which science and technology advance at a speed which is difficult to comprehend; things that were always impossible become possible, then actual, and then unremarkable in astonishingly short order. Yet at the same time, ancient goddesses and arcane magical practices are finding a warmer welcome among literate, educated people than our veneer of scientific rationality would ever suggest.
The literature of Goddess spirituality presents the movement as a contemporary resurgence of what was supposedly humanity’s original religion – the worship of a single, immanent female deity whose feminine nature allegedly fostered utopian civilizations of sexual and racial equality, shared wealth, peace, and communion with nature. As we saw in a previous article, however, Goddess writers freely and frequently ignore and distort factual evidence about the ancient world as they imagine their matriarchal paradise into existence.
Is the story of the Goddess true? By any conventional understanding of the word “truth,” the answer is No. But does Goddess spirituality “work”? Does it provide sustenance and satisfaction? Indeed it must, in some fashion, for it has succeeded in enlisting hundreds of thousands of participants in just the past fifty years. In so doing, the Goddess movement has made its presence felt in influential sectors of society, not least in the Academy and in the Church.
THE MODERN GODDESS
Goddess spirituality begins with Wicca, modern witchcraft. In 1951, when Parliament replaced the Witchcraft Act of 1736 with the new Fraudulent Mediums Act, Gerald B. Gardner became the first Englishman to proclaim himself a witch in the public eye, and to recruit followers into a coven. His version of witchcraft presented itself as a benign celebration of natural forces and pleasures. The core of Wiccan life is ceremony: the ritual observance of “earth holidays” like the solstice and equinox, initiation rites for those entering each of the three grades of “the Craft,” and other charms and incantations as desired.
Despite his claim to have joined a surviving coven of traditional witches in 1939, there is no evidence other than Gardner’s own words that this coven ever existed. He is almost universally regarded as the inventor of Wicca, not its discoverer. Nearly every element in Gardnerian witchcraft can be traced to books that were available to him, or to identifiable people and groups of which he had personal knowledge. Among the latter, the most important are representatives of the revival of interest in magic and the occult which caught fire in the late nineteenth century: Rosicrucians, Theosophists, Freemasons and Co-Masons, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Aleister Crowley, and Dion Fortune. A great many Wiccans know this, and remain comfortable with it. Indeed, Wicca has become a very flexible faith, providing ample opportunity for individuals and groups to tailor its teachings and practices to their own preferences.
One particularly striking feature of contemporary Wicca, however, is the centrality usually accorded to its goddess figure. According to Gardner, the central myth of the witches is the descent of the Goddess to the underworld; after she is stripped, bound, and scourged by Death, she comes to love him as a force of nature, and learns from him the magic of love and the life cycle. While Wiccans often venerate a male deity as well, the Goddess is paramount. Similarly, covens may function without a priest, but a high priestess is essential.
The witches’ Goddess seems to be a Gardnerian innovation, clearly indebted to the well-known descent myths of Inanna, Ishtar, and Demeter. Although European witchcraft was long regarded as a predominantly female activity, the evidence of actual goddess worship among pre-modern witches is negligible. The Goddess espoused by Gardner, the maiden-mother-crone who embodies the benevolent forces of nature, is really a twentieth-century creation. She surfaces in the literature of Robert Graves (particularly his 1946 treatise The White Goddess) and in the novels and magical teachings of Dion Fortune (1891-1946), who said that a religion without a goddess is halfway to atheism.
THE GODDESS IN CONTEMPORARY
Gardnerian Wicca was thus the first notable religious movement of the English-speaking world to put a female deity at the summit of its pantheon. Spreading from England to America in the early 1960 s, it arrived just in time to commend itself to the burgeoning movement of “second-wave” radical feminists. While many of the latter were entirely secular and political in their orientation, those of a spiritual inclination could not fail to notice Gardner’s Goddess as an enticing alternative to the supposedly male God of the allegedly patriarchal churches.
The consequences of these developments have been manifold. First, American Wicca soon produced new branches or “traditions” which were specifically feminist in orientation: Z Budapest’s “Dianic Witchcraft,” a women-only movement of lesbian separatists, and Miriam “Starhawk” Simos’s successful popularisation of Wicca as Goddess religion (The Spiral Dance, 1979).
More strikingly, however, the Goddess made her way outside the covens into influential sectors of society. In 1967, some of Carl Jung’s disciples translated into English a selection from the writings of J. J. Bachofen, a nineteenth-century Swiss amateur historian. He had theorised that human civilisation evolved from an original state of disordered sexual relations through an intermediate stage of matriarchy into the patriarchal system which has prevailed in the West since Roman times. While Bachofen’s theory had long since been dismissed by professional historians and anthropologists, the publication of these excerpts in the late 1960s also caught the attention of radical feminists, who promptly recast Bachofen’s hypothetical matriarchies as utopias precisely because of their supposedly female character.
As feminist theory became intellectually fashionable, Gardner’s Goddess and the tale of utopian matriarchies coalesced into the Goddess myth as we know it today. Neither one stands the test of critical historical investigation; neither one is accepted by more than a tiny fringe of professional historians, anthropologists or archaeologists. Yet, with the rise of Women’s Studies programmes as the academic beachheads of radical feminism, the Goddess myth gained currency and credibility among many who did not have the inclination or the resources to investigate its claims independently, or who were sympathetic to feminism on other grounds. As a result, courses on the Goddess flourish in many North American universities, while books and articles pour from the presses.
This marks an important departure. While most actual Wiccans are content to regard their Goddess story as a myth, a congenial and comforting tale which informs their ceremonial life, non-Wiccan supporters of the Goddess tend to be more insistent on the veracity of the myth itself. Here, the ancient utopian matriarchies are celebrated not for their own sake, but as models for contemporary social reform. The radical feminist agenda appears to gain plausibility if people can be persuaded that female-centred societies really did exist, and really were better than what we have now.
While these developments took place in and around academic life, a parallel situation developed in the churches. As radical feminism attracted the attention of the avantgarde, the campaigns for liturgical revision and inclusive language began to take sustenance and substance from Wicca and the Goddess movement. For those who sought female imagery to balance against “male” God-talk, Scripture and tradition provided little scope. Importing goddesses from other established religions held scant promise; most everyday Christians would object to such blatant syncretism, and indeed the foreign goddesses themselves rarely fit the benign stereotype preferred by Western feminists. Gardner’s Goddess, however, was both acceptable and accessible.
By the late 1970s, sourcebooks on feminist spirituality began to appear, with titles like Womanspirit Rising and The Politics of Women’s Spirituality. The contributors included Wiccans and matriarchalists alongside Jewish and Christian feminists, as they made common cause against traditional expressions of biblical orthodoxy. Their claims rapidly gained a hearing in the mainstream denominations, and thus Wiccan ideas were imported into contemporary Christianity.
Women’s groups in many churches employed “Cakes for the Queen of Heaven,” a ten-week course in Goddess spirituality produced by the Unitarian Universalist Association. As liturgies and hymnbooks were rewritten, Goddess language became part of the parlance of “progressive” Christians. The Reimagining Conference of 1993 – notorious for its celebration of multiform sexuality, its recasting of the eucharistic elements in terms of female physiology, and its blatant hostility to all traditional Christian teaching – was in fact a “Christian” event, funded largely by the Presbyterian and Methodist Churches and attended by approximately 2000 representatives of the major denominations.
WHY DO THE PEOPLE IMAGINE A VAIN THING?
Given the ease with which the factual claims of Goddess spirituality can be disproven, its rise to popularity among modern, literate, educated people is striking. This is no “cult” preying on the depressed and dispossessed; demographic studies have shown that a sizeable proportion of Wiccans and Goddess devotees are white, middle-class, middle-aged people with university backgrounds and good jobs. There is now a second generation developing amongst computer-savvy young adults. In the religious smorgasbord of the Internet, the Goddess appears to cut a very attractive figure.
What makes the Goddess so appealing that intelligent people are willing to ignore or even defy the facts of history on her behalf? One key factor, of course, is precisely her sex. The Goddess is portrayed as female in a much more literal sense than the biblical God is ever made masculine. The lunar phases and seasonal cycles are correlated with the Goddess’s female physiological processes. She births the universe into existence and never seems to sever the umbilical cord, for the earth is the Goddess, Gaia, and we are told to love and care for her as our mother.
Talk of the Goddess, therefore, is not simply the application of female imagery to the biblical God; as Cynthia Eller put it, the Goddess is not just God in a skirt. Goddess spirituality asserts that divinity is immanent within creation, identified with the forces of nature and accessible by way of the inner self – this is the ultimate purpose of the rituals. Notions of a transcendent God who reveals Himself to a fallen world are anathema to this way of thinking.
Here, the intrinsic modernity of Goddess spirituality comes into plain view. The female deity is commended to us for reasons which mirror precisely the popular themes of late twentieth-century Western culture. As Carol Christ explained in her celebrated essay “Why Women need the Goddess,” the image of the divine female serves to empower women, to raise their self-esteem, to liberate them from patriarchal thoughts and structures. Elinor Gadon went on to assert why men, too, need the Goddess: to re-establish contact with the inner femininity they have been taught to deny.
This sort of “need” is not soteriological but psychotherapeutic (indeed, the Goddess movement owes much to the psychiatric mysticism of Carl Jung). For that very reason, however, Goddess spirituality often seems to “work.” Its affirmation of the ultimate dignity of the self, reinforced by ritual celebration in a cosy group, speaks to a popular culture in which self-affirmation has become the highest goal of life, while new forms of intimacy are being concocted to compensate for the fragmentation of family and community life all around us.
Further, the immanence of the Goddess appeals not only to those who prefer to find divinity within themselves, but to those with genuine concerns for human welfare and the state of the planet. To all appearances, a universally immanent deity ought to foster respect and concern for all people, and indeed for the whole natural environment; this is the Goddess’s attraction for people of a progressive political orientation. Paradoxically, however, neopagan belief in divine immanence has fostered precisely the opposite attitudes as well.
Goddess spirituality is in many ways a designer religion. Its appeal is quite clearly shaped by the ethos of self-discovery and self-aggrandizement which is so characteristic of the past quarter-century. It attracts people because it seems to “fit” them, to refine and elevate their images of themselves. Even though its political values may be at odds with the economic culture of the global corporations, the same impulse towards self-fulfilment drives both the Goddess movement and the modern consumer. Moreover, the cavalier attitude towards objective truth and factual evidence which we find in Goddess literature has a distinctively post-modernist flavour when it is articulated with sufficient clarity.
To what extent does all this matter? Is there anything wrong in rituals celebrating Mother Earth, or in treating ourselves and each other as manifestations of the Goddess? Unfortunately, there is all too much potential for harm on many levels. We shall conclude this series of articles with a consideration of this disturbing possibility.
Philip Davis is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada, and Chairman of the Anglican Free Press